Efficiency! (OR Better Cars are Good)

May 19, 2009

OK, I admit it… I’ve been blowing off the blog for a long time. I have no excuse. My explanation is that the news seems to be progressively more depressing every day, and I really can’t bring myself to focus on it for too long.

That being said, there was some good news yesterday:

The Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would set the new fuel-economy standards, which would raise the average fuel efficiency of a new car by 30 percent. Cars, for instance, would need to average 39 miles per gallon by 2016, while light trucks would need to reach 30 mpg.

The EPA, using its power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, plans a tailpipe emissions standard of 250 grams per mile for vehicles sold in 2016, roughly the equivalent of what would be emitted by vehicles meeting the mileage standard. Vehicles sold in 2009 are expected to emit about 380 grams per mile, industry sources said.


“In addition to dramatically reducing the global warming emissions from our vehicles, this move will slash our dependence on oil and make us more energy independent,” Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope said in a statement. “Congress put us on the road toward more fuel efficient vehicles two years ago when it passed the first increase in fuel economy standards in more than 30 years. Now President Obama is dramatically accelerating our progress.”

My illustrious co-blogger continues to try to convince me that it’s more important that we improve efficiency at the bottom end of the scale, which is, technically, true. Unfortunately, I can’t shake the feeling that improvements at the high end of the spectrum can highlight inefficient vehicles…

For example… let’s say the average truck is getting 15 mpg and the average car is getting 30. Dave will tell you, and I would agree, that we make a bigger dent in emissions by raising the truck to 30 mpg than the car to 45 (increasing efficiency by 100% compared to 50%).

One of the difficulties, however, is that we humans (especially the non-math oriented ones) don’t necessarily think like that… 10 mpg is 10 mpg. And, worse than that, 10 doesn’t seem like all that much.

I feel like there needs to be something at the high end of the efficiency scale demonstrating what’s possible. People are still surprised when I mention that my little VW sedan gets 45 mpg. You can almost see the “wow, that’s a lot” thought run through their brain. To me, that just indicates how skewed our perceptions are. When we can advertise cars that get 30+ mpg as “best in class” mileage, we’re missing something.

The people buying and driving those 15 mpg SUVs are looking at the mileage they could get in a car (say 25-28 mpg) and figuring that 10-12 mpg isn’t really that big a deal. And they’d be right, since that 10 mpg, would take them half way to the most effiencient car available. But what if the really efficient cars were getting 50+ mpg or more? Then those same 10 mpg would still mean they’d need to double their effiency to reach the top of the scale. Suddenly, 10 mpg doesn’t seem like too much.

So, yes, we need more efficient vehicles all the way around (which the Obama Adminstration proposal will do) but we also need to get consumers to be more aware of what’s possible, and what they might be missing.

And, yes, I acknowledge that this also means getting consumers to value efficiency over size and power, but we saw that begin to happen when gas was $4 a gallon. It’ll happen again when prices rise to that level once more.


Note: I’m writing this post with an external editor… so, apologies for bad formatting/broken links, etc… :)

Speed and Efficiency (OR Two Birds)

September 9, 2008

I’m late to the party, I know, but I wanted to add another perspective on the whole speed limit thing.

Dave’s Kansas argument is certainly compelling, but all it really means is that Ezra’s limit is too low. Of course, once we start talking about limits in the 90 to 100 mph range then we’re not really making much of a difference.

To me, though, we’re coming at this from the wrong direction. For decades, car manufacturers (particularly those in the US) have taken advantage of low mileage requirements to build bigger, faster cars. Along the way they encouraged an arms race of sorts where the only spec of value is horsepower, which is really about going fast.

If, by some miracle, we establish efficiency standards (or a carbon tax), creating an environment where more value rests in efficiency than top speed or rediculous acceleration, then we also create an environment where cars don’t go as fast. This isn’t to say, or course, that cars should no longer be fun to drive, or go the speeds necessary to pass that truck going downhill. Just that the focus needs to shift from speed to efficiency.

Some cars already represent this shift (the Prius or my beloved TDI), but even they don’t necessarily go far enough, and certainly aren’t common enough. And then, there are the American companies (in this case, Ford) that produce what would be one of the most efficient cars in the country, and choose not to sell it here. I can only imagine it’s because it might tarnish the image of “Ford Tough”.

Bottom line, it’s time to alter the qualities we value in cars, and we need our government to lead the way, since our “free market” companies refuse to actually make the changes the market is beginning to demand.

Circuitous (OR Through the back door?)

July 2, 2008

Matt discusses the merits of regulating horsepower in an effort to improve efficiency, which was presented by David Sandalow:

Regulation, he plausibly argues, could get us out of a horsepower arms race in a way that would have little negative impact on anyone’s life while allowing us to capture technological gains in engine efficiency in terms of reduced fuel consumption rather than in terms of faster cars that let you get to the traffic jam more quickly.

I appreciate the logic here…  and I must say my 90 horsepower car gets me around just fine, but if our objective is to improve efficiency and our tool is regulation, wouldn’t it just make more sense to regulate efficiency?

Uh oh (OR Is it too late?)

June 28, 2008

What Wil said.

Improvement? (OR Missing the target)

June 19, 2008

President Bush declared yesterday that the solution to high oil prices is drilling, throwing his political weight (such as it is) behind Sen. McCain.

Rayola Dougher at the American Petroleum Institute says those deposits could boost the nation’s oil supply by one to two million barrels a day within seven years.

Seven? As in 70% of a decade? Seriously? This is the answer to high oil prices? You’re kidding, right?

Seriously, if the answer to our problems is seven years out, wouldn’t it make sense to take the initial steps towards a sustainable solution, like more efficient cars?

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy figures the nation will save an equivalent amount — two million barrels a day — just from the latest increase in fuel efficiency requirements for cars, but not until 2025.

Yeah, those pathetic increases in CAFE standards… Congress had a chance to pass legislation that would actually be helpful but whiffed (or maybe fouled it off). So now we have to hear that further exploiting our planet is a good idea. All so we can save a few cents on gas IN SEVEN YEARS!

This sounds like a typical Republican ploy. Find a destructive and ineffective policy that can be touted as the answer to all our problems and then attack your Democratic opponent for sensibly opposing it.

Which then begs the question: Does the support of a President with a 75% disapproval rate actually help you get elected?

Power This (OR Increased flexibility?)

June 18, 2008

I’m going to take a moment from my regularly schedule hectic week to reiterate Dave’s point about electric vehicles:

plug-ins are the first thing that will make a serious dent in the amount of gasoline that we burn that can be brought onto the market in the next half-decade or so. As said, that doesn’t necessarily prima facie mean that we’re reducing the amount of carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere, but I do believe it puts us in a better position to make improvements.

Think of it as centralizing your energy source…  part of the difficulty we face now is that we have a huge fleet of gas guzzling car, trucks, SUVs, etc. on the roads today. Even if there were a panacea, it would take many, many years to convert the nation’s automobile fleet to vehicles that don’t spew tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

If we begin moving to plug in hybrid, or straight electric, cars now, we begin the process of removing street emitted carbon sooner. The electricity does come from somewhere, true. And, yes, it may come from the ever-so-dirty coal power plants. But, as our energy production migrates (hopefully) to renewables (wind, solar, hydro, etc) or, by some miracle, carbon sequestration acheives viability (no, I’m not rooting for it, but someone will), we’ll be ahead of the curve. We’ll just need to transition our power source, not our entire fleet of cars.

It’s all about baby steps…  we’ve sat on our hands long enough, we need to do now those things we can do now. Hybrids already exist, although their gains are limited. Plug-in hybrids are immediately feasible, as are electric cars. Let’s start there. Heck, let’s start sacrificing horsepower for efficiency… or at least give the consumer that option.

Additionally, think about this side effect of more electric cars (with giant batteries) from Marketplace:

Ed Legge is spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association. […] 

Plug-in hybrids actually are one way that could give us a giant virtual battery.

Legge says some utilities eventually hope to borrow electricity from electric car batteries during peak energy hours. The cars would recharge at night, when demand is at its lowest.

Transportation (OR Does this map look eerily similar to anyone else?)

June 9, 2008

The Agonist points to this map from the NY Times about gas prices and income…

Obviously, there are lots of implications of this kind of data, but my first thoughts were:

  • Much of most effected areas are in staunchly red states.
  • Could Democrats make some headway in these areas by adding an “Affordable Public Transit” plank to their platform?

It seems safe to assume that gas prices aren’t going to drop any time soon… and we’re already behind the curve when it comes to public transit. Wouldn’t this be a good time to accentuate any public transit aspects of a climate change prevention/reversal policy?

A Little Holiday Environmental Misogyny

May 26, 2008

Headline: Chicks Can’t Drive

Subhed: Also, Chicks Are Crazy.  Maybe It’s Their Time Of The Month?

In all seriousness…I did click over to the Indy for a brief period yesterday, and I was severely disappointed to see that they’re doing a great deal of work and pub declaring that they’ve switched to using ethanol-based fuels to run the Indy 500.

This is, of course, a highly questionable decision, when you consider the fact that the environmental benefits of ethanol are questionable, at best, while it is completely accepted that increased use and production of food-based ethanol drives up food prices, increasing starvation in Third World countries.

I don’t know why I should be disappointed, really.  Should I expect an event which is dedicated to the proposition of driving a car as fast as humanly possible to be environmentally conscious?  Should I, instead, be happy that such an event is even trying to put a minor sheen of environmental consciousness on themselves?  The problem I have, which is really the problem I have with ethanol altogether, is that it really is not a way of improving our environmental footprint.  At best, it seems to be a way of decreasing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, while doing the same harm environmentally.  Only, driving a flex fuel vehicle makes people feel like they are doing something for the environment, which might well reduce their urge to take other, more concrete steps to conserve energy.

So, on balance, I consider this fact to be yet another reason to detest and belittle the fact that we consider the act of driving a car 500 miles in a circle to be a sport.

It’s still better than hockey, of course, but that’s really not setting the bar very high…

Better Bio Fuel (OR Looking past corn)

May 25, 2008

I guess tonight is “good news for the environment” night…

This story (also via The Agonist) at Kos is somewhat heartening…  specifically, for me, in my quest to find a true electric car:

Target Launch of the cityZENN, powered by EEStor: Fall 2009

The cityZENN is planned to be a fully certified, highway capable vehicle with a top speed of 125 KPH/ 80 MPH and a range or 400 kilometres/250 miles. Powered by EEStor, the cityZENN will be rechargeable in less than 5 minutes, feature operating costs 1/10th of a typical internal combustion engine vehicle and be 100% emission-free! The Zero-Emission, No-Noise cityZENN will be designed to meet the transportation requirements of a large percentage of drivers worldwide.

Eating Plastic (OR Cool Science Stuff)

May 25, 2008

Via The Agonist, it appears that someone has discovered a microbe that loves to eat plastic.

Oh yeah…  this discovery was made by 16-year old.

Kinda makes you wonder what we could learn if we invested money in professional research along these lines instead of how to give middle aged men erections.